Driving from the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Venice is not just one of the great car journeys of the world, it is also a revelation about the gross nonsense being talked about Italy as an economic sick man of Europe.
Travelling through and to the wine regions of Europe by car and train I get to see, close up and in detail the state of an economy in reality rather than from very partial statistics and analysis clearly being driven by market forces with a simplistic goal of continuing to make supernormal profits. In Spain, we find a ruined countryside blighted at every off ramp by another half built hotel, incomplete shopping mall or worse finished giant industrial sheds and beautifully and expensively tarmaced roads, all empty, unsold and never likely to be sold. The Spanish roads are eerily free-flowing and empty these days. In the North East of Italy in what used to be called the Po Valley, the traffic is horrendous along the entire route from Turin to Venice, bustling evidence of vibrant economic activity. The Po Valley is a vast stretch of land running roughly from Milan to Venice along what is a natural pyramidal basin with Milan as the point and the Venetian coastline as the base of the pyramid. Hour after hour is spent travelling in convoys which create canyons of huge trucks, all Italian, filled with the produce of this region, one of the world’s greatest industrial powerhouses. Truck after truck of stainless steel kitchen appliances, electronics, clothes, aerospace parts, triple-decker car transporters, wine and food of every description, but mainly of the holy grail of Irish government policy, high value finished consumer goods, that’s pasta, soups and pre-made meals to you and I. Over every crest of a hill along the entire route are engineering works, marble and stone yards and above all petro-chemical plants transforming the bounty of the Alpine flow of minerals into the base materials of modern capitalism. The entire route from Milan onwards is essentially an unbroken industrial conurbation. Until of course you leave the motorway and head up into the glorious lakes and valleys which run at right angles to the Po and the motorway. Quickly the picture book Italy that has lured George Clooney, Anakin Skywalker and the wealthy of Europe for 2500 years looms up into sight. The Romans came here to build Villas and plant vineyards that still make Tuscany look like the summer holiday theme park that it has become. Arguably the greatest architect of the Renaissance, Andrea Palladio, is of course from this North-Esatern region and all of his astonishing and influential villas were cited in and around the North East, Italy’s industrial and technological heartland.
Technologically Proud Wine
While the rest of the wine world, apart from North Eastern Italy and a few Australian behemoths, seems to be obsessed with foregrounding the entirely natural, non interventionist and rustic nature of their wine making. In the Veneto, in the main wines of the Italy’s financial and industrial heartland, things are quite different. They revel in the complexity of man’s genius and technological skill at the heart of the winemaking process. Although the physical landscape that the great vineyards of Soave, Valdobbiadene – home of Prosecco and Valpolicella sit in are entirely and beautifully rural, indeed classically so, the mind-set of the technological and enterprising genius of the ‘North East’.
Ancient Enterprise Culture
Wine making has been in action in the Veneto since the Roman Empire and before, possibly because Venice and Ravenna have always been important Adriatic trading ports, Greek, resinated wines are noted in the Veneto and a peculiar strong sweet wine called Reticum is praised by a line of poets including Virgil. Great emphasis is placed on Reticum by many modern wineries in the Veneto. They all suggest that it was a wine made from dried or semi dried grapes, and therefore the ancestor to modern Amarone, the icon wine of the Veneto. Wines in the past were made and consumed in very large quantities around harvest time. Storage and transportation in clay amphora was common, but some where along the line, an enterprising vineyard owner must have decided not to ferment all his crop but to put some into the attic space of his villa to dry out. Drying to preserve grapes to ferment them, to order, so to speak must have seemed like a possibility. When the rehyrdated grapes were then fermented it left unfermented sugars giving the wine a sweetness that was obviously liked. Today in the Veneto, this artificial drying process is called Appassimento. Appassimento is the process whereby grapes are picked and sorted onto large trays, rather like old fashioned wooden bakers trays. These trays have a low lip, about two inches high and have a base made out of bamboo. The reason for the bamboo is that it allows for air to circulate and any moisture to evaporate or fall away through the slats. If it were a solid base the grapes would wilt, a stew of grape juice would form in the shallow tray and a fermentation would begin. This drying out process can take weeks. In the past it was a very climate affected event, with some buildings and some townlands fairing better than others. Good breezes and some cool evenings were ideal, so valleys close to lakes like Lake Garda did especially well with their late evening Alpine chill. Once the grapes were dry, very long, worrying fermentations were the order of the day. The reason for the difficulty is that in the days before temperature control the fermentation of dried grapes took place in cold cellars, where the yeasts did not work easily or at all until the spring. The resulting sweet wine in the Veneto was called Recotio.
Inventing Amarone and European Pass The Parcel Before The EU
In 1797, the City State of Venice and its thousand year history was ended by Napoleon, who successfully invaded and conquered the whole of the Po valley region. Oddly enough unifying it for one of the first times since the fall of Rome. The French influence was not long but it left a mark on the wines of the region both stylistically and in fostering connections with French wine regions. Many winemakers and business people were inclined to France and their dry wines began to have an influence. A young Veneto winemaker called Gaetano Bertani went to France and studied under Professor Jules Guyot, the scientist responsible for how modern grapevines are spaced, trained and tended. Above all a man who wanted to apply modern scientific rigour to wine making. Bertani retuned to a untied Italy and with his brother founded a winery, still in family control today which helped shift winemaking in the Veneto away from a rustic craft into a modern, adventurous, experimental endeavour. The most important name in the Veneto wine business is however probably Masi Agricola, this is the name of the Boscaini family’s Veneto Winery. The Boscaini family have been making wine since the 17th century, but founded the Masi Winery in 1772. Today they are credited with popularising Amarone on a worldwide basis, but in truth they were one of a dozen family owned wineries that all played their part in the 1950s and 1960s. Up until then Valpolicella was known more for the sweet Recioto della Valpolicella as the red sweet wine was called. Gradually from the 19th century onwards, a dry wine, perhaps initially a mistake became a feature of the Veneto landscape. This was a version of Recioto where the fermentation had run on to completion, converting all the sugar into alcohol. It was a bitter wine, Amarone, means bitter. So it was sometimes called Amraone of Recioto della Valpolicella. It is not until 1968 that we have a agreed name of Amarone to mean the dry wine and this was not put into legislation until 1991. In 1964, the spirit of experiment and technological embrace was at its height. A reconsideration and examination of Apassimento lead to Masi launching the first Ripasso Wine, Campofiorin onto the world in 1964. This is a wine that uses the dried grapes destined for Amarone to reignite a second fermentation in ordinarily produced still wine. It is, using an analogy that is reasonably justifiable, rather like squeezing a partially used teabag in an already made cup of tea to add a bit of oomph. It was a huge success, it created a market for a sort of Amarone-lite that all the other producers in the region quickly adopted each with their own name and each claiming to have been doing something of the sort, already. The Ripasso wines of Masi, Bertani, Tommassi, Guerrieri Rizzardi, Sartori, Serego Alighieri and Zenato and many others are arguably the best value and most consistent red wines in Italy.
In Love With Tech, The Veneto and On Going R&D
“We set up the Masi Technical Group to continue to explore and experiment, to continue looking for better ways of working. That does not mean novelty for its own sake and it does not means adopting constantly new things. At Masi we have not jumped to plant all of the new varietals that the laws now allow us.” Says Sandro Boscaini, current head of Masi. “It has meant refining our existing techniques, bringing the best of what we can do today into the winemaking. So for example we can now regulate the Appassimento to obtain the optimal state for the grapes. We cal it, and I quite like it, NASA. Natural Appassimento Super Assisted. We are not afraid of this, we want to make great wines, that is the goal.” Says Boscaini. To this end, Boscaini and Masi have not stood still with their Campofiorin Ripasso technique and have tweaked it into what they call a Double Fermentation process. In effect the whole dried grapes element is now not an adjunct using dried grapes from the Amarone process, but high quality grapes dried and used once for the production of a second fermentation in Campofiorin. Drying rooms rather than attics, selected yeasts, temperature control, computerised monitoring and every other modern technique that Masi and the majority of the other Amarone makers can use, they do use. No wine makes itself, but Amarone, Ripasso and other double fermented blended wines of the Veneto make a virtue of foregrounding the impact of men and women, the winemakers and the vineyard workers as an equal, if not just more important part of the Terroir than most other regions are comfortable to admit. Tasting Amarone, Soave, Ripasso and Prosecco wines is tasting the genius and hope of Italy’s most industrious region.
Tasting Very Human Genius
Masi Amarone Costasera Classico 2007 (92) around €35 Luigi Righetti, Amarone Classico DOC, 2007 (90) around €23 Zenato, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2006 (92) around €45 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva, Sergio Zenato 2004 (94) 75.00 Bertani Villa Arvedi, Amarone della Valpolicella 2007 (93) around €59 Guerrieri Rizzardi, Villa Rizzardi Amarone Della Valpolicella 2004 (92) around €39.99 Musella, Amarone Della Valpolicella DOC 2003 (91) around €49.99 Montezovo Amarone della Valpolicella 2007 (90) around €27.95 Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2007 (92) around €38.99
Ripasso or Double Fermented Veneto Wines Masi, Campofiorin alpolicella Classico Superiore 2006 (89) around €14.99 Zenato, Ripasso Della Valpolicella Classico Superiore, 2007 (90) around €20 Guerrieri Rizzardi Pojega Rippaso DOC Valpolicella Classico 2008 (90) €18 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre Ripasso Valpolicella 2009 (89) around €21 Bertani Villa Novare Ripasso Valpolicella 2007 (89) around €18.99 Musella Ripasso, DO Valpolicella Superiore 2007 (88) around €17 Masiano, Pinot Grigio and Verduzzo, Double Fermented and Blended White, IGT Verono 2010 (89) around €14.99
Recioto – Sweet Red Veneto Montezovo Recioto della Valpolicella 2007 (91) around €27.95 Bertani Recioto della Valpolicella 2003 (90) around €24.99 Tomasso Bussola, Recioto delle Valpolicella Classico BG 2000 (92) around €40
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